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From the Vault: Stanford-UCLA 2012

Looking back at a pair of high profile games that won Stanford’s first Conference championship under David Shaw.

Pac-12 Championship - UCLA v Stanford
It was a hard fought PAC-12 Championship Game played in the cold and rain.

Welcome back to The Vault, where each week I give a historical overview of Stanford’s history with a particular team and highlight a meaningful game from that series. This coming Saturday, the Stanford Cardinal will welcome the UCLA Bruins to The Farm so I’ll be looking back at the history between these two programs. Then, I’ll be recapping the pair of games that the Cardinal and Bruins played in the 2012 season, two of the most important matchups this rivalry has seen.

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The Stanford-UCLA rivalry is an interesting one. The four California schools in the PAC-12 all consider themselves to be rivals, but to different degrees. Stanford and Cal are each other’s biggest rivals across all sports, and UCLA and USC have an identical connection. The Big Game and the Crosstown Showdown are two of the great rivalries in college sports and they hold a special place in the hearts of the fans of all four universities.

Secondary to the Bay Area and Los Angeles rivalries, are the rivalries between the pairs of public and private schools that make up the foursome. Stanford and USC’s history as the only private universities in the PAC-12 and their mutual disdain for the other is well known. Cal and UCLA have a similar relationship. Both schools are part of the University of California system and compete on the field and in the classroom as two of the greatest public universities in the entire world. Rounding out the relationships between this tetrarchy of California schools are the rivalries between Stanford and UCLA, and USC and Cal.

The athletic rivalry between Stanford and UCLA truly extends across all sports. The Cardinal and Bruins are the primary reason why the PAC-12 is known as the Conference of Champions. When team and individual sports are combined, Stanford leads the nation with 596 combined national championships. UCLA is fourth behind USC (494) and Texas (397) with 382 of their own. Cal is eighth with 277 combined national championships. All four of the California members of the PAC-12 are among the highest achievers in collegiate athletics, whose accomplishments tower above those from other conferences. Team sports are where the Cardinal-Bruin rivalry shines brightest. As of September of 2017, Stanford and UCLA are tied atop the all-time NCAA D-I team sports championship list with 113 titles apiece. USC is currently third with 104 titles and Cal is 11th with 36. As the two most accomplished athletics programs in the realm of team sports, Stanford and UCLA are competing every year in virtually every sport. Football is but one meeting in a calendar year full of games between these high achieving programs vying for national championships. Still, the yearly football match is the most visible and best attended meeting between these two rivals.

UCLA was founded in 1919 as the Southern Branch of the University of California. They immediately began playing football and their teams were known as the Cubs, a reference to their junior status to the University of California Bears. The Southern Branch Cubs renamed themselves the Grizzlies in 1925 and, under the direction of new head coach Bill Spaulding, scheduled their first game against Stanford University. It was bad timing. Stanford had just hired Pop Warner and were turning into one of the best football teams in the country. At home in Stanford Stadium, Stanford absolutely annihilated Southern Branch 82-0, the most lopsided game ever played between these two teams.

Southern Branch wasn’t deterred, and the school kept growing at a rapid rate. In 1927, the school renamed itself the University of California, Los Angeles, proclaiming themselves on equal footing with Berkeley. The next year, UCLA changed their team name to the Bruins and joined the Pacific Coast Conference, the home of Cal, USC, and Stanford. Nearly 40 years younger than every other member institution, UCLA had plenty of catching up to do. Their yearly clash with SC quickly became the premier showcase of football talent in Southern California, and their emerging rivalries with Cal and Stanford also slowly blossomed.

UCLA’s first games with Stanford weren’t all that impressive. Stanford was a legitimate national power under Pop Warner and won the first five meetings, mostly in blowout fashion. Still, the Bruins kept improving under the guidance of Bill Spaulding. UCLA won their first game against Stanford in 1932, beating Warner right before he left The Farm. The next time that the Bruins would beat the Indians was in 1935, a hard fought 7-6 game at Stanford Stadium, and their first road win of the series. UCLA ended up in a three-way tie with Stanford and Cal atop the PCC standings. The Bruins had beaten the Indians but lost to the Bears. Meanwhile, Stanford was able to beat Cal at the end of the season. To the chagrin of both UC’s, the Indians were selected to participate in the Rose Bowl, their third in a row.

All told, Stanford dominated the early years of their rivalry with UCLA. By the time World War II rolled around and the Indians shut down their program, Stanford held an 11-3-1 lead in the all-time series. However, the resumption of the rivalry in 1946 was a demonstration of the sea change that occurred between both schools in just a few short years.

Bill Spaulding, the architect of UCLA’s football program, retired following the 1938 season. His replacement, Edwin Horrell, led the Bruins to their first outright PCC title and Rose Bowl berth in program history in 1942. UCLA would lose to Georgia 9-0. Horrell was fired because outside of two successful seasons his teams fared rather poorly. Bert LaBrucherie was the head coach in Westwood when Stanford revived their football program in 1946. His Bruins went undefeated that season, including a 26-6 home victory over the Indians. Despite their success, they again lost the Rose Bowl, this time to Illinois. UCLA again cratered after this successful season and LaBrucherie was replaced by Henry Russell Sanders in 1949.

Los Angeles was a fast growing city by the Second World War, but the postwar boom drove it into overdrive. In just a few decades Los Angeles would transform into one of the most powerful economies in the country and the second largest city after New York. All of the people and money flooding into the LA suburbs helped to turn UCLA into a football powerhouse. Red Sanders, already an accomplished coach at Vanderbilt, harnessed the talent of the region to finally push the Bruins to achieve their full potential.

Stanford-UCLA never really took off among the PAC-12’s best rivalries because both teams very rarely were great at the same time. The 1950’s was the exception. The meetings between Chuck Taylor’s Indians and Red Sanders’ Bruins often had Rose Bowl implications. Stanford won the PCC in 1951, Taylor’s first season, with wins over UCLA and Cal. The Bruins had a 5-3-1 record that year, owed mostly to a slow start. It would be their worst under Sanders. In 1953, UCLA lost 21-20 to the Indians at Stanford Stadium, but Stanford then lost to USC and tied Cal, giving the 8-1 Bruins the PCC championship and their first Rose Bowl berth under Sanders. UCLA would lose to 28-20 to Michigan State.

Red Sanders led UCLA to three straight PCC titles and a national championship in 1954.
USC Digital Library

1954 was the Bruins’ best year ever. UCLA allowed more than seven points only once all season, and shut out five of the nine teams they played. The Bruins’ 72-0 massacre of Stanford was the worst they ever inflicted upon the Indians. The PCC had a “no-repeat” rule at the time, meaning that UCLA couldn’t go to multiple Rose Bowls in a row despite winning the conference championship. The Bruins had to sit and watch a USC team they beat 31-0 lose to Ohio State 20-7. Still, UCLA were voted national champions by the UPI Poll and split the 1954 season championship with Ohio State who won the AP Poll. In 1955, once again able to make the Rose Bowl, UCLA went undefeated in PCC play. Once again, they lost in the Granddaddy of Them All to Michigan State which kept them from repeating as national champions.

UCLA remained strong in 1956 and 1957, but they wouldn’t win the PCC championship. Red Sanders died unexpectedly shortly before the 1958 season, prematurely ending his dominating tenure in Los Angeles. This did not, however, end UCLA’s time as a competitive force on the West Coast. Though they would never win another national championship, for the rest of the 20th Century the Bruins would remain one of the three most competitive programs in the AAWU/PAC-8/PAC-10 alongside USC and Washington. The greatest of UCLA coaches to follow Sanders: Tommy Prothro and Terry Donahue, held records against Stanford that heavily skewed in the Bruins’ favor. In 1965, Prothro’s first season, UCLA won the AAWU, and finally, in their sixth attempt, won the Rose Bowl 14-12 over undefeated Michigan State. Prothro held a 4-1-1 record against Stanford, his tenure also overlapped with the Bruins’ six game winning streak over the Indians from 1963 to 1968, their longest in the series.

A classic West Coast matchup.
David Madison/Getty Images

Stanford was a rather noncompetitive team from the 1960’s onward. Despite flashes of brilliance under John Ralston in the late 60’s and early 70’s and under Tyrone Willingham in the 90’s, Stanford was almost never on par with UCLA. During Terry Donahue’s 20 year tenure from 1976 to 1995, the Bruins won five PAC-10 championships, went to four Rose Bowls and won three of them, including two in a row in 1982-83 and three of five stretching from ’82 to ’85. It’s almost surprising that UCLA only had a 12-8 record against Stanford in those years considering that the Cardinal won no PAC-10 championships in that span.

Over time, UCLA gradually eroded and then eclipsed Stanford’s lead in the all-time series. The Bruins began leading the series beginning in 1965 and haven’t looked back. In fact, UCLA won on average two games to the Stanford’s one in the course of 62 years from 1946 to 2008. Games were often close, and the Cardinal won some of them, but more often than not the Bruins were simply better. In addition to USC and Washington, UCLA are the only original PAC-8 member to have a winning record over Stanford.

The series currently stands at 45-40-3, but when the 2009 season started, it was a much more daunting 45-31-3 in UCLA’s favor.

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Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Stanford raised few eyebrows at the time, especially in Los Angeles. USC was unbeatable and UCLA was focused on their own problems. Since winning two PAC-10 championships in 1997-98, the Bruins had been rather mediocre. By 2007 they were enduring their longest conference title drought since their decade without a championship from 1965 to 1975. By 2009 it was officially the longest. 2009 was also the first time that UCLA had lost to Stanford since 2003, ending a five game winning streak against the Cardinal. What’s more, in 2010 Stanford won again. This time it was a 35-0 shutout at home in the Rose Bowl to a national championship contender. Suddenly it was time to pay attention to Stanford. By winning 45-19 in 2011, only their third victory in a row against the Bruins, Stanford held their longest streak against UCLA since 1931. Stanford was officially a college football bona fide and the Bruins had become an afterthought. After a 50-0 shellacking at the hands of USC and a loss to Oregon in the first PAC-12 Championship Game (in which they didn’t belong) head coach Rick Neuheisel was fired.

Jim Mora was brought in to coach UCLA in 2012. Mora had only ever coached in the NFL and it was considered a strange hire at the time. However, Mora immediately started winning in Westwood. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley was a key player. Hundley combined with running back Johnathan Franklin to produce a particularly potent backfield. Early losses to Oregon State and Cal kept the Bruins under the radar, but wins over Arizona State and USC (their first in six years) in October and November meant that UCLA won the PAC-12 South for the second straight season, this time without the aid of the Trojans being suspended from postseason play.

Stanford had a similar storyline for their 2012 season. The Cardinal had lost Jim Harbaugh and now Andrew Luck and their future was uncertain. The offense suffered due to graduation and Josh Nunes wasn’t working out as quarterback. Close losses to Washington and Notre Dame sealed Nunes’ fate and he was benched for redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan. Under Hogan, the offense lit up. The backfield, led by Stepfan Taylor and augmented by Anthony Wilkerson was very strong. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz became favorite targets for Hogan, who was still learning the finer points of the David Shaw’s complicated schemes when he took the starting job. Stanford’s offense was improving dramatically as the season wore on. In November, the Cardinal held off #13 Oregon State and traveled to face #1 Oregon in Eugene the very next week. In a hard fought overtime thriller, Stanford beat the Ducks 17-14 to finally shake off their so-called Oregon problem. With only one game left, the Cardinal were finally in position to win the PAC-12 North.

When the PAC-10 expanded to 12 teams and added a conference title game, it messed with Stanford’s and USC’s end of year arrangements. With the PAC-12 Championship Game being held on the last week of the season, the end of year game with Notre Dame had to be held on the last week of November. This pushed The Big Game and the Battle for Los Angeles into the previous week. That meant, on alternating years, USC and Stanford have a game between their traditional rivalry game and the PAC-12 Championship. In 2012, with USC playing Notre Dame at the end of the year and Stanford already having played Cal the week before, the PAC-12 scheduled Stanford and UCLA to play their yearly game to close out the regular season.

Given the expectations each team faced before the season and their early losses, it seemed unlikely that the game would mean anything. Then, UCLA beat ASU and USC, and Stanford beat Oregon State and Oregon. Suddenly, with both teams entering with 9-2 records, the game meant a whole lot. The Bruins had a two game lead in the South and could afford the loss, though it might affect their bowl standings. The Cardinal, meanwhile, were tied with one conference loss apiece in the North standings with Oregon. A loss to UCLA would mean that they lose the division to the Ducks once again, this time with the bitter taste in the mouth at having defeated Oregon but lost the division race all the same.

It was a UCLA home game, with the Rose Bowl serving as a reminder for what the stakes meant to both programs. The game began very competitive, with both teams trading touchdowns on their first drives before it devolved into a defensive slog. Both Hogan and Hundley were bringing their best, but the Stanford defense was clearly having an effect on the Bruins run game. Johnathan Franklin was held to a paltry 65 yards on 21 carries and UCLA only managed 73 yards on the ground all game. With the run game neutralized, Hundley was forced to carry most of the burden. UCLA’s freshman phenom passed for 261 yards but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the Cardinal. Stanford managed two consecutive touchdowns in the second half, one a long and plodding textbook Stanford drive, the other a 49 yard sprint by Stepfan Taylor. The score was 21-10 at half.

Stanford v UCLA
Kevin Hogan got the better of the Bruins in the first game.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The second half went even poorer for the Bruins. In the third quarter, Hundley was intercepted in UCLA territory, leading to another rushing touchdown from Taylor. On the ensuing kickoff, UCLA return man Kenneth Walker fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Stanford’s Usua Amanam for a touchdown. The score was now 35-10. UCLA managed a final scoring drive where Johnathan Franklin finally found the endzone but the damage was done. The Cardinal defense allowed no scoring in the fourth quarter.

With the win, Stanford moved to 10-2 and held an 8-1 record in PAC-12 play. Their tiebreaking win over Oregon gave the Cardinal the right to play in the PAC-12 Championship Game. The representative of the South, of course, was UCLA. It is very unusual that rematches happen at all in college football, but they have become more common with the advent of the conference championship game. However, a rematch in consecutive weeks, was completely unique.

The 2012 PAC-12 Championship Game was held in Stanford Stadium in front of a paltry crowd of 31,622 and it was rainy throughout. The passing attack of each team was affected by the weather, and both Kevin Hogan and Brett Hundley had trouble getting the ball through the air.

UCLA was much more prepared this second time around. Given the extra week to watch tape and make adjustments, the Bruins hounded Stanford from the outset. UCLA opened the game near their own 10 yard line and ground out a slow drive towards midfield before Johnathan Franklin broke out for a 51 yard touchdown run. Stanford responded with a touchdown drive of their own, mirroring last week’s opening moves. Unlike last week, the Bruins responded in kind. UCLA executed another drive punctuated by Hundley’s legs. The Bruin QB rushed for 48 yards on one carry, and then handed the ball to Franklin who took it another 19. Hundley then ran into the endzone himself to put UCLA up 14-7. The Bruin defense subsequently forced Stanford to punt. It would be different game indeed.

Pac-12 Championship - UCLA v Stanford
Johnathan Franklin gave Stanford trouble all game.

Hundley was far from perfect. On the ensuing Bruin possession he made a costly error when he threw an interception to Ed Reynolds, who scrambled 80 yards to bring the ball on the very doorstep of UCLA’s goal line. Stepfan Taylor hammered the ball home on the next play to tie the game. Now the defensive struggle ensued. Neither team managed more than one combined first down for the rest of the half until Stanford managed to put together a drive on their final possession. Jordan Williamson kicked a field goal to put the Cardinal up 17-14 as each squad headed into the locker rooms.

On their first possession of the second half, UCLA made it to the Stanford 13 before having to settle for the field goal, tying the game once more. After forcing a punt, the Bruins continued to move the ball well. Unlike the previous week, Franklin would not be corralled by the vaunted Stanford defense. Franklin was running in tandem with Hundley, and the pair marched down the field before Franklin broke off a 20 yard run into the endzone. Hogan and Stepfan Taylor responded in the same manner. Hogan’s pass to Drew Terrell tied the score for the fifth time.

Once again, a defensive struggle broke out in the damp, cold weather. Jordan Williamson kicked a field goal to elevate Stanford 27-24 with just under seven minutes left in the game. UCLA tried as hard as they could, but the Bruins could barely manage to get across midfield against Stanford’s aggressive defense. Their best chance came with just 34 seconds left. UCLA had driven to the Stanford 34 but the drive had stalled out. Bruin kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn was forced to try a 51 yard field goal in an attempt to push the game to overtime. Fairbairn’s shot flew left, giving the Cardinal the ball, the win, the PAC-12 Championship, and berth in the Rose Bowl.

Pac-12 Championship - UCLA v Stanford
Stanford celebrates its first victory in the PAC-12 Championship Game.

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UCLA has had some good years under Jim Mora, but they just can’t seem to beat the Cardinal in short odds or long. The losses have been humiliating and sometimes heartbreaking and with the two losses in 2012 the eight year streak has extended to nine games. It’s easily the Cardinal’s longest winning streak in the series and it’s the longest streak either team has managed in the nearly 90 years these teams have met on the gridiron. UCLA hasn’t won the South Division since 2012 and their conference championship drought continues to extend.

Stanford’s two wins in two weeks over UCLA was a big moment for the Cardinal program. Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck had never won the PAC-12 and taken the team to the Rose Bowl, but David Shaw and Kevin Hogan did just that. Stanford was able to win their first Rose Bowl since 1972 and they’d be back the very next year and to a third in 2015.